The pressure and expectation that has burdened many an England side at major tournaments in the past seems to have been alleviated under Roy Hodgson. There weren’t many who had England as their tip to win these Championships. There were many who thought they be departing after the group stage. With a new manager, key players absent and a pedigree for tournament disappointment, even the British media have struggled to hype up their chances of winning (I’ve yet to see one “We Can Win It!” tabloid headline). But on Sunday, the Three Lions will take to the field for an unexpected quarter-final against Italy after topping Group D. One game away from a semi-final against old enemy Germany. Two games away from glory.
Hodgson will be keen to keep the pressure off the players however, as their performances under his tenure have been effective and efficient, if not spectacular. England no longer go into games trying to “out football” teams, they make themselves a tough nut to crack. After years of supposed underachievement and some glorious failures, they finally seem to be playing to their strengths and playing to a manager’s system who he has complete faith in. If England can keep the opposition out, world class players like Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard always have the potential to be match winners.
But in Italy, England have an opponent whom they have never triumphed over in competitive internationals. These days, they are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Once a side packed with household names, many of the players that take to the field for Italy on Sunday will be relative anonymities to many of the watching supporters around the world. Departing legends such as Nesta, Maldini and Gattuso have been replaced by the likes of Bonnuci, Balzaretti and Marchisio. The spine of the side is now made up of players from Juventus, all players who will not be used to losing after an unbeaten season.
Italian football was once again plunged into controversy in the wake of another match fixing scandal before the inception of these Championships. The emphasis from the Italian media in the build up to the tournament was focused more on misconduct and deceit, than the day-to-day ongoings of the national side. Cesare Prandelli and his men have therefore been able to go quietly about their business, making a solid start to the Championships. A little bit like 2006, when the Azzuri went on to lift the World Cup. England should be very cautious before they start to look towards the next round.
Here’s the lowdown on both teams to help you make your own mind up about who might emerge triumphant on Sunday night.
Form So Far:
The Three Lions negotiated a tricky Group D and came through as group winners. The first game was synonymous with Roy Hodgson’s tactics for the side, as England battled to a 1-1 draw with the French, Joleon Lescott giving England the lead. The key game for me was against the Swedes. Many an England side in the past would have crumbled after going 2-1 down. The players showed tons of character however and they rallied to win the game 3-2 with goals from Andy Carroll, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. They then came through a tough clash against hosts Ukraine, with the returning talisman Wayne Rooney netting the winner in a 1-0 victory.
The Azzuri more than matched World and European Champions Spain in their Group C opener and it could be argued that they were a little unlucky to only pick up a 1-1 draw after Antonio Di Natale gave them the lead. They repeated the feat against Croatia in their second game, with Andrea Pirlo netting a superb free kick before Croatia came back to attain a 1-1 draw. This meant only a win would realistically do in their final game if they were to progress and the Italians duly obliged, disposing of hapless Ireland 2-0. The goals coming from strikers Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Likely Line Ups:
England have the luxury of a fully fit squad to chose from, whereas Italy will be missing their best centre back in Georgio Chiellini. Prandelli will also have to decide between starting either Antonio Di Natale or Mario Balotelli alongside Antonio Cassano up front. Thiago Motta, meanwhile, is an injury concern for Italy. England’s wide men Milner and Young could prove key to England’s chances as they will look to get around the outside of the Italians narrow midfield three.
Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young, Rooney, Welbeck
Buffon, Abate, Barzagli, Bonnuci, Balzaretti, Pirlo, Marchisio, De Rossi, Montolivo, Cassano, Balotelli
Joleon Lescott vs Mario Balotelli:
Both have come into the tournament on the back of a Premier League winning season and will be looking to add a European Championship medal to their Premier League success. Lescott has been excellent alongside alongside John Terry at the heart of the England defense, making all the clamor surrounding Rio Ferdinand’s omission look seemingly irrelevant. Whilst Lescott has offered England and Manchester City a consistent reliable foundation, the same could not be said for Balotelli. Whilst his erratic nature and bizarre antics have been ridiculed by the English supporters all season, Balotelli has the talent to put England out of the tournament. He will be keen to get one over on his club mates Lescott and Hart. Both will have to be wise to his tricks and talents.
Steven Gerrard vs Andrea Pirlo:
Another similarity between this Italian side and the one that triumphed in 2006 is that they have Andrea Pirlo at the heart of it. And despite being in the twilight of his career at the age of 33, he has continued his excellent form from his season at Juventus, guiding them to an unbeaten season and a much coveted 28th Scudetto title. Steven Gerrard will be up against Pirlo in the middle of the park and he is also enjoying an excellent tournament, racking up three assists from some incisive passing and dangerous crossing. Pirlo will be sitting deep in the Italian midfield and will look to dictate play from there. Gerrard will be tasked with getting close to Pirlo and to stop him controlling the tempo of the game. The Liverpool man must also look to escape Pirlo’s attentions when he breaks forward from midfield. Both also offer excellent deliveries from set pieces.
Wayne Rooney vs Daniele De Rossi:
Whilst Rooney returned with a winning goal against Ukraine, his overall performance showed signs of rustiness. But he can surely on improve his performances with more game time and in turn, improve England’s chances of progressing through to the semi-finals. Rooney will look to drift between midfield and defense and it will be tasked to De Rossi to pick him up. When England are not in possession, expect Rooney to drop into midfield to make a 4-5-1 type system. He will look to press Roma man De Rossi who will anchor the Italy midfield and look to dictate the game alongside Pirlo, a job they have done excellently so far in the tournament. Controlling Rooney will be crucial to Italy’s chances, as he will look to expose Chielini’s absence at centre back with some intelligent through balls to Welbeck.
I can’t see there being many goals in this one unfortunately. Both sides are defensive by nature and the midfield will be seriously congested. It could take a moment of brilliance from either Rooney, Gerrard, Balotelli or Pirlo to provide us with a winner. The absence of Chiellini is a massive blow for Italy. He is a huge player for them. I feel without him, England’s pace could cause the Italy defence problems, especially with Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain to come off the bench. I couldn’t possibly predict an England defeat though, could I?
England 1-0 Italy
Follow me on Twitter: @13mattj13
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